This past Saturday morning I attended a conference at Cal Tech here in Pasadena on web platforms. The similarities between operating system platforms and web-based platforms really struck me. Specifically, it seems there is an analog to the FSF’s four freedoms of FOSS and the freedoms provided by various web platforms.
These freedoms are not to be confused with Marc Andreessen’s ontology of web platforms. His typology is architectural — more akin to the distinctions between operating systems, middleware and applications. But among Andreessen’s Level 3 “run-time environment” web platforms (current and planned) such as Salesforce.com, Ning, Facebook, Amazon AWS and Google App Engine, there are different freedoms afforded to users.
- The freedom to use your own data. (See the social web users’ Bill of Rights.)
- The freedom to design a unique user interface (without requiring platform logos or “badgeware”).
- The freedom to develop your own apps (even if they compete with the platform’s own apps).
- The freedom to embed apps running on other (competing) platforms.
- The freedom to easily take your apps elsewhere.
This list certainly needs to be refined. But it’s a useful starting point to compare the various platforms on the market. Facebook has mightily resisted providing freedom number 1, resulting in a potential opening for Ning and others. Salesforce.com (their platform offering is called Force.com) promises freedoms 1-3, but to my knowledge doesn’t support freedom 4 and definitely does not support freedom 5. It isn’t enough to expose APIs if those APIs are custom and proprietary to the platform, since this locks in the user. Hence the impetus for Open Social, an initiative for standard platform APIs that wants to provide portability of applications.
For a user of the platforms, the more freedom the better. But this is where the analogy with open source comes in — use of the platforms must be monetized. In the consumer space this happens with ads, and in the business space this happens with by-the-sip pricing, but these freedoms can create opportunities for free riders, just as in open source.
But, more so than with open source, we need to remember that it’s very early days for web platforms. We’re seeing the concept of platform moving from an operating system to the entire web itself. It will take some time for the economics, the technology and the marketplace to sort itself out.